Constancy is one of the charms of the solo fingerstyle guitar category. In contrast to the rip-it-up-start-again ethos of musicians from various other genres, the notable fingerstyle guitarists have openly emulated earlier players while carefully making their own mark. Nonetheless, the category transforms, with resonant changes occurring when a particular player can effectively bring unique attitudes of his/her time to the story. So it was with British fingerstyle guitarist Dave Evans, his classic Kicking Mule album from 1974, Sad Pig Dance, re-issued this fall as an expanded CD collection by Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop.
At the outset of the 1970’s, Dave released The Words In Between and Elephantasia, both solid examples of singer-songwriter music from the period, with a few instrumental numbers added to the mix. “Ten Ton Tasha” and “Elephantasia,” from the latter, both feature whimsical, delay-treated overdubs sounding akin to progressive rock music, which was in its heyday at the time. I asked Stefan Grossman — producer of the Sad Pig Dance sessions, co-founder of Kicking Mule Records and tireless champion of Dave’s guitar playing — about the shift in emphasis from songs and multi-layered arrangements to unaccompanied guitar:
“Kicking Mule Records featured guitar solos and Dave had quite a few solo instrumentals he wanted to record. He and I wanted to present these as solos as the tunes were so interesting and did not need any other instruments to clutter up the melodies”
The incredible opening cut from Sad Pig Dance, “Stagefright” is one of Dave’s signature works. Aptly described by Grossman as a “tour de force in guitar playing,” it shifts through an array of moods in a short time (under four minutes). The introductory passage, a playful assemblage of hammer-ons and pull-offs, ushers in the Celtic-tinged verse, which is gradually subverted by increasingly chaotic runs before giving way to the triumphant, strummed passage and repeating in full. The performance of “Stagefright” featured on the Vestapol DVD Fingerstyle Guitar: New Dimensions & Explorations 2, is one of the most charismatic pieces of solo guitar footage I’ve seen:
My favorite cut from the album is “Morocco John.” This tune has an emotional, sketch-like quality that I find very moving. In the notes from the LP sleeve, Dave describes it thus:
“For John who rented a beautiful house overlooking the Atlantic for three pounds a month. I spent a week with him, living on chick pea soup, brown bread and olives. He taught me to play…”
Herein is another charm of the solo fingerstyle guitar (or any instrumental) category… its narrative power. As with “Morocco John,” a hint from the composer, embedded within the title or liner notes, can move the listener to imagine the narrative as the tune unfolds.
An excerpt from “Morocco John” by Dave Evans
In 1976, Kicking Mule released the follow-up to Sad Pig Dance, a mix of songs and instrumentals entitled Take a Bite out of Life. Stefan Grossman, who again served as producer for the sessions, recalls:
“When we came to the second album of his songs we tried to get other companies interested that focus on singer/songwriters as Kicking Mule certainly did not. But no other record company was interested so we decided to try our best on KM.”
As with Dave’s first recordings, there are some fine songs on Take a Bite out of Life. Still, its standout cuts are the four instrumentals (all of which appear as bonus tracks on the Sad Pig Dance CD reissue). I’m not sure it would be fair to characterize Dave as “the gifted guitarist who was compelled to sing,” though one might conclude it from studying the arc of his recording career, which effectively ended in the late 1970’s (Dave now lives as a potter in Belgium). Either way, in my mind, he was one of the rare players whose command of traditional material was virtually unmatched, yet also possessed the flair and imagination to weave elements of his time into the music, leaving the tradition richer.